Category Archives: Family values

My sister, the author

On Saturday, I rushed into the living room excitedly brandishing a book.

“Look, you guys!” I exclaimed to my electronics-engulfed children. “You know your Auntie Ruth? Well, she’s written a book and it’s being published next week, and here’s our copy!”I waved the advance copy of Ruth Whippman’s The Pursuit of Happiness And Why It’s Making Us Anxious enthusiastically in their general direction.

Oddly enough, despite the book’s utter lack of connection to anything computational, Jamie was the one who became quite interested in the concept of his aunt being an author. (“Is Auntie Ruth going to be on the news?” he asked me.)

“So what’s it about?” he asked me that evening. I was reading it in between getting the two of them ready for bed.

“Well, you know Auntie Ruth lives in America? Over there, they think a lot about how to be happy, and this book is about how they spend too much time thinking about it and it isn’t actually working.”

“If I see anyone randomly reading it on the street,” Jamie declared “I’m going to tell them it was my auntie who wrote it.”

“That’s great. But you won’t see anyone else reading it before Thursday, because it isn’t published until then. We got an advance copy because of knowing Auntie Ruth.”

“So is that the only copy in the world, then?”

“Oh, no. Granny Constance has one, and the publishers, and some other people who know Auntie Ruth. But I don’t think you’ll see any of them on the street.”

“So do any random civilians have a copy, then?”

__________________________________________________________________

I was nervous before getting the book; if I didn’t like it, how could I best say so tactfully? Obviously I knew it was going to be well written – it was my sister’s work, after all – but what if I just disliked the format, or disagreed with it? What would be the correct etiquette response for dealing with such an unspeakable breach in sisterly support?

I needn’t have worried; the book is brilliant. It’s readable, it’s fascinating, it’s incisive, it’s informative, and it is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny (usually with bits that are simply impossible to explain to puzzled children wondering what Mummy is laughing at). I read it over the weekend and spent the next few days carrying it with me and brandishing it at playground mums and co-workers at every possible opportunity and probably the occasional impossible one. (“Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter being bullied! By the way, can I just show you MY SISTER’S FIRST PUBLISHED BOOK?”) I was going to write more detail about it but I think I’ll save it for the entirely unbiased and impartial Amazon review that I plan to post at the first available minute (I thought about staying up till midnight to see whether I can post one the minute the book officially goes on sale, but that really would be a bit much with work the next day, so it’ll have to be first thing tomorrow). So what I’ll do here is write some of my personal reactions to reading a book by my sister.

A significant part of the book consists of personal anecdote and commentary, and this was kind of strange when I’d actually been around for many of the events described. What, attending Saturday morning orchestra as children made us social lepers? Good grief, I never realised that (probably because I was so abysmally bad in any social setting anyway that I was blithely oblivious to such niceties). Huh, Grandma Martha was a Methodist? Don’t think I knew that. And what on earth is Ruth talking about – she looked gorgeous at her wedding!

At one point, I was reading a passage on Ruth’s reaction to childhood tantrums with my own inner commentary running as it does at such points in books – ah, yes, tantrums, I have to say I actually didn’t mind them, in fact I found it quite nice to have a couple of minutes’ break in which I could legitimately ignore my child – and moved on to the next paragraph to discover to my amazement that I HAD ACTUALLY BEEN QUOTED AS SAYING THIS. A thing I said. In an actual book. That made my day. (It also, as an incidental bonus, meant I didn’t have to feel too guilty about failing to dress up as a book character for Katie’s school’s Family Learning Morning. I mean, I am now officially a book character. Coming as myself was obviously fine.)

Ruth also spends a lot of the book writing (entertainingly, not mawkishly) about her various insecurities; for me, this was the equivalent of that Poignant Moment in novels when you discover that the incredibly cool character was secretly wrestling with massive self-doubt all the time. In our teens, Ruth was the prettier and more socially skilled one of us;  throughout our twenties and early thirties, she always seemed to be the one with the exciting social life and boyfriends practically for the asking; now, when I see her, she always seems to be an amazingly cool/together/involved mother. In a weird and probably Schadenfreude-steeped way, it was quite a relief to find out how much of this time she actually spent feeling madly insecure and cherry-picking her Facebook photos.

And finally, the answer to the crucial question Ruth struggles with in the book’s opening sentence: The person doing your smear is concentrating on getting the job done, and actually does not require you to make any small talk at all. You’re welcome.

 

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Auntie Sarah

On Sunday, 22nd September, my aunthood was upgraded from one nephew to two. My sister had been booked for a planned Caesarean on the 23rd, but Zephaniah 'Zephy' Daniel didn't want to wait (possibly having realised that all the coolest families have child spacings of precisely three years and five days) and made his exit a day earlier than planned. Mother, child, father and big brother are all doing well and Zephy is absolutely gorgeous. Congratulations, Ruth and Neil, and I look forward to continued adventures in aunting.

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Party time

I was woken at 5.15 a.m. by Jamie standing by the side of the bed insisting he wanted to get up now.  Thank goodness for late winter dawns – when it's obviously dark outside, it's a darned sight easier to convince a child it's not morning yet.  I persuaded him back to bed by climbing up to the top bunk and snuggling up next to him, and in this way got another two hours of sleep before being woken by Katie climbing out of her bunk and heading out of the door; I followed her back to the side of our bed and persuaded her to get into our bed to go back to sleep, thereby getting a valuable final fifteen minutes before Jamie woke up again and both of them insisted on starting their day.  I'd played mentions of the day's planned presents fairly low-key, and certainly neither of them woke up clamouring for presents, so I think it must have just been the general excitement of having guests in the house.

Once all three of us had managed to get dressed and breakfasted and Barry's mother had woken up and come downstairs to look after Katie, I took Jamie into town to get his glasses seen to (the frames have been tightened and the opticians have booked his eye test, which was due in January anyway, for December 10th with a view to getting new glasses for him) and then, once he was back, Barry took him to Sainsbury's to choose the cake.  We had unfortunately forgotten to clarify to him that this was actually the usual Saturday shopping trip for food for the next half-week, so he was a bit bewildered when they got to Sainsbury's and didn't head immediately for the cake aisle.  "OK, I'll go there and wait for you," he told Barry, who eventually had to bypass the others to make that their first stop before Jamie would settle down enough to do the rest of the week's shopping.  Meanwhile, I got a bit of time to myself as Barry's parents took Katie down into town to enjoy the various attractions set up to celebrate the turning on of the Christmas lights the day before (including balloon modelling and a sort of bungee jump up and down on a trampoline).  She came back sound asleep in her pushchair – I had to lift her out and take her shoes and coat off for her while she tried to curl up on the stairs and go on sleeping.

"I think sooooomebody should have stayed in bed longer this morning," I told her as I slid her arms out of her coat.

"No, Mummy,” Katie surfaced to assure me earnestly, “I wasn't sleepy then. I didn't need it then, but then some more tiredness comed onto me.”

I had to sympathise with her on that one.

Jamie and Barry got back from Sainsbury's, my mother arrived, and we all had lunch followed by slices of the cake Jamie had picked out (a model of a Nintendo DS with buttons made of icing and a screen picturing Super Mario), and then relocated to the living room for opening the presents.  Jamie got a Wii from us, games for that and for his DS, and a Lego model of Buzz Lightyear in a spaceship, all of which he reacted to in totally blasé fashion.  ("Yes, I can see what it is.  It's a Wii.")  Katie got various Duplo sets (a dump truck, a transporter, a fire station and a road-mending scenario), and a scooter, and reacted as though she had been rehearsed in playing the part of Enthusiastic Moppet: "A DUMP truck!  And, look, I got MORE Duplo!  This is amazing!  I got such brilliant presents!"

Jamie spent the rest of the afternoon playing with his various electronic media and Katie spent it playing ramblingly imaginative games amongst her various Duplo sets, and I have now finally got them both settled to sleep, though only after Katie spent some time running excitedly up and down the upstairs hall shrieking about running through the lava with a metal cap to get things (a bit of Super Mario plot she'd picked up), and then laying out a bridge across the lava with her giant furry caterpillar and snake ("I'm getting my long toys") and a row of books.  Which means it's time I went to bed myself, all ready for the inevitable early call tomorrow morning.

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Your Gran’daddy And Me

My mother just sent me an e-mail asking what song I felt I'd inherited from the generation above and what song I'd want to pass on to the next generation.  (It seems she and my sister, in a discussion as to what their own choices would be, had started speculating about what I'd choose.  What they thought I'd choose and what they chose themselves was not detailed in the e-mail.)

When my sister and I were children, every so often our family would spend the evening having a sing-song.  My father could play the guitar (admittedly for fairly loose values of the term 'play', but these things don't matter to a small girl who gets the chance to sing along to her father making music), and we used to sing what years later I would learn to categorise as traditional/folk songs.  Big Rock Candy Mountain, Sloop John B, Dona Dona, Pack Up Your Troubles – I remember singing all of those, and have had a go at singing each of them to my own children, along with a motley collection from the musicals in which I had bit parts during my medical school years.  Somehow, the one that has caught on most has been Sloop John B, aka the Go Home Song (Jamie) or 'the song about how he's all broken up inside' (Katie).  I'd have classified it as my second favourite song at the time of those musical evenings – my favourite was Big Rock Candy Mountain.  But something about its minor cadence fits with the bittersweetness of singing a song of my father's to the grandchildren who will never know him. 

We sailed on the Sloop John B

My gran'daddy and me

Except, when I first started singing it to Jamie almost four years ago, I realised I was making a minor change in the words without even thinking about it:

We sailed on the Sloop John B

Your gran'daddy and me

When I noticed that, I didn't try to put it right.  I sing the song that way deliberately now.  I sing Your gran'daddy and me, words for a song that is one small way in which my father and my children are linked through me, one tiny gift from the father who loved me so much to the grandchildren he never had a chance to love just as much, one tiny gift from me back to him, the gift of keeping his memory alive and passing it on to the next generation.

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Hello To The Salt Beef

On being asked a few days ago what she would like in her packed lunch the following day, Katie replied "The thing with bits in."  On request for further clarification she was able to tell me that it was round and flat, which left me none the wiser.  I offered several guesses as to both specific food and general category before her face brightened and she exclaimed "Soof beef!"

"Ahhhhh.  Salt beef," I amended.

Katie's brow furrowed.  "I don't think I could say that very – er – loudly."  (As an approximation of the idea of 'clearly', that's not bad.) 

"OK.  So you want salt beef."

"What was that other thing you called it?"

I cast my mind back through the recent conversation.  "Meat?"

"Meat!" my daughter confirmed delightedly.  "It's meat."

"It's a kind of meat," I clarified.  "So is ham, sausage, turkey slices… Anything that's pieces of an animal is called 'meat'".

Katie looked rather worried by this.  "How does that happen?"

"Well," I explained brightly, "the animal gets cut up into pieces.  But it's all right – it gets killed first."  (That one may not actually make it onto the Top Reassuring Statements Of All Time list.)

"And then they get a flattener," Katie agreed with the air of one for whom matters are starting to fall into place, "to make the salt beef pieces."

"Not a flattener, love.  They cut the pieces like that."

"No, Mummy," Katie explained earnestly, clearly determined to make sure I had this point straight, "a flattener.  To flatten the pieces."

I let it go at that.  There is only so much detail on the mechanics of cutting up dead animals that you want to be going into in any one conversation with your three-year-old.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

"On January 17th," Jamie mused aloud on Friday morning, apropos of not very much, "Baby Solly will be able to have the pink mat."

It was not the first time that Jamie had planned the date on which a particular item could be passed on to his infant cousin – a few weeks back, when he finished a set of books from a reading scheme that had different colour codes for different ages from three to seven, I overheard him commenting that on September 17th, 2013, we would be able to send Baby Solly the red  books, and then on September 17th, 2014, the… etc.  However, this one surprised me somewhat, since the pink mat in question (one of those suction mats you put on a high chair tray to hold bowls in place against the efforts of infants to knock them flying – I bought this one for Katie and never got round to using it, so it became one of the zillion pieces of junk littering our house) is on top of the dining-room bookcase supposedly out of Jamie's field of vision.  I do recall showing it to him years ago when he caught sight of it and wanted to know more, but I certainly wouldn't have expected him to remember that it was still there – hell, I'd barely remembered it was still there.  However, he is quite correct – it is indeed labelled as being for the 4+ months age range and, as unbelieveable as it seems, that is indeed the age that Solly is due to turn on January 17th.  I agreed with Jamie that Solly might well want the pink mat.

"But not until January 17th," Jamie stressed.  Age limits are not to be taken lightly, in Jamie's world. 

So there you have it, Ruth – if and when you do decide to go ahead with the solids, there's a pink suction mat available for Solly if you so wish.  Only after January 17th, of course.

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Eight maids a’milking, nine ladies dancing

We spent the weekend at my mother's, and it was wonderful.

On the way down, we stopped off briefly at a service station to take the children in to use the toilets.  When it was my turn to take Katie in, I pounced delightedly on a display of neck pillows in the style of brightly-coloured animals, and bought some for us.  Jamie and I have purple dragons, while Katie chose an elephant which she has named Watercup Seece.  At least, that's the phonetic version of how it's pronounced, although I keep seeing it in my mind's eye as Watercup Six pronounced with a French accent, which probably makes me incredibly pretentious.

On the Sunday, my sister and her family came round to join us for lunch and present-opening, which meant I finally got a chance to see my new nephew again.  (Oh, yes, and my sister and brother-in-law.  That was fun too.)  Baby Solly, now three months old, was of course the star of the show and even interested Jamie enough for him to put down his Nintendo for long enough to walk into the next room and look at him briefly, but Katie was quite enthralled by seeing a real live baby and promptly decided to make this toy into her own Baby Solly, which she lovingly rocked in the spare car seat and handed puzzle pieces to be pretend toys.  She decided it should be called Watercup Seece.  I pointed out that that might lead to a certain degree of confusion with the aforementioned elephant pillow of the same name, and she amended it to Watercup Seece-Seece-Seece, though I gather it still goes by the name of Baby Solly to his friends.  She took it with her when we left, still crooning over how much she loved it as she fell asleep in the car holding it.

(Yes, I did notice in the process of googling for that image that there have been safety concerns raised about the toy due to the mercury in the battery.  However, a search of the CPCS website found no record of any official concern and, as Barry pointed out, to get to the battery she would have to tear her way through a layer of thick rubber, so we have decided that we can continue letting her enjoy it with clear consciences.)

Anyway, we all opened presents and had one of my mother's delicious lunches and then Ruth, Neil and Solly had to leave and we had to take Jamie out for a walk as he was bouncing off the walls.  We got back with a somewhat calmer Jamie and a thoroughly exhausted Katie and, after feeding them, bathing them and putting them into pyjamas, loaded them into the car for a late-evening drive back, lifting them straight into bed when we got home. 

That's one child successfully anecdoted (my newly coined past participle) as promised; for Jamie, I can't think of anything from today as he's spent the time almost exclusively on playing Nintendo, which is not the stuff of which cute anecdotes are made.  (I know, I know – it's not the stuff of which high scores on the Good Mummy scale are made, either.  I probably need to work on this whole parenting thing somewhat this year.)  So, one from the archives:

When Jamie was two going on three, he went through a phase of being fascinated by word play involving opposites.  So, when we told him to settle down, he would squeak with an impish grin "Settle up!"  We were also introduced to such gems as 'calm up', 'cool up', crash up', and 'the hicdowns', and, once, when Barry found Jamie lying with his little hand-held light pressed directly against his eyes shining into him and remonstrated "It's bad for your eyes," Jamie replied "It's good for your nose."  And, for a long time, we used to look for 'yes parking' when we were trying to find a parking spot.

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The November Carnival of Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding, Circa 1950s

The Carnival of Breastfeeding is back!

As longstanding readers may remember, I started participating in the Carnival of Breastfeeding at the beginning of this year, and got posts up for January, February, and March.  The reason I stopped writing posts for the Carnival after that was because the Carnival stopped.  The blog of one of the main hosts was cut off without warning (unfortunately I can't remember who the provider was that did it, or I'd name and shame them wholeheartedly) and the Carnival just didn't seem to reappear, although I did regularly check for some months after that.  In the end I gave up checking, and thus missed the first month's reappearance, although that was probably no great loss to the blogging world as I can't really think of any particularly interesting ways in which my birth experience impacted my breastfeeding experience.  However, thanks to Hobo Mama's Sunday Surf, I found that the Carnival was baaaaaaack in time to write something for November's deadline.  

(Quick note: As usual, I will be posting this on the day of the Carnival – November 22nd – but amending it once the other posts are out there to include links to them at the end.  Do check back after the end of the 22nd to see who else has submitted a post.)

Our brief for this month is to write about the history of breastfeeding through the generations in our family.  For what it's worth, here's what I know:

My mother breastfed me for six weeks before getting mastitis and becoming one of the far-too-many women of the time to be given the totally inaccurate advice that she should stop breastfeeding (we now know that the reverse is true – stopping breastfeeding actually makes mastitis worse, due to the buildup of milk in an already painful breast).  When she questioned this, the doctor said to her "Mrs _____, some women are SELFISH when it comes to thinking about what's best for their babies.  You don't want to be SELFISH, do you?"  So she stopped breastfeeding and she and my father spent a miserable day struggling to persuade me to take a bottle, something I wasn't in the least willing to do after six weeks of exclusive breastfeeding.  Thirty-four years later, the first piece of advice she would give me when I was pregnant with my first child – even before such important gems as "Don't solve the problem until it happens", and "The most important thing you can do for your kids is to enjoy them" – would be "Make sure you give your baby a bottle every day, even if it just has a little bit of water in it." 

I eventually resigned myself to taking the bottle (though apparently not before storing up some serious karmic retribution, judging by the amount of my maternity leave my daughter would someday spend stressing me out by her utter refusal to take the bottles that I had indeed tried to introduce at an early stage) and was formula-fed from then on.  But my mother's breastfeeding story did have a happy ending – later, she went on to breastfeed my younger sister for a year.  (And now our generational story has come full circle; my sister is now breastfeeding her own beautiful little boy.)

Since I know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the breastfeeding history of any of the other women of previous generations in my family and, quite honestly, can't see myself asking, that would have been that for this month's blog post.  Except that my mother saved two particularly special gifts for her two daughters.  She saved the books she used for information when breastfeeding each of us.  She saved them through decades and (in the case of mine) two international moves, so that she could give them to us when we had our own children.

I don't know what book my sister got (although I'd love to see it, someday), but mine was the second edition of the La Leche League's The Womanly Art Of Breastfeeding, published in 1963.  A thin volume in a blue hardbacked cover embellished only with the title and a simple line drawing of the LLL's logo, a woman cradling a baby (slightly different from the one used today – there's a definite 50's look to the woman's hairstyle).  On the inside of the front cover is my mother's handwritten name and the Philadelphian address where she and my father lived during my infancy, before we moved to the UK.  On the facing page, above a stamp reading 'Childbirth Education Association Of Greater Philadelphia', is a personal inscription that my mother wrote to me before presenting the book to me on the first Mother's Day after my son was born.

It's a fascinating relic from a bygone era.  While the decade might have turned to the 60s three years before that edition was published, the book was first written in 1958 and the ethos of the second edition is still wholeheartedly 50s.  Sometimes this shows up in glaringly obvious ways; an entire chapter is devoted to the father's role as protector and provider and to the assurance that, just because the authors advocate that he helps his wife out at particularly busy times (obviously, only when there are no women relatives available to step in and the family can't afford hired help), it in no way means that they aren't all in favour of men being masculine and there being a 'natural division of labour' within the family.  'La Leche League was formed for no other purpose than to help women be more womanly' the authors assure us.  Other signs of the thought patterns of that era are more subtle, assumptions dropped in casually in passing; discussing how a mother might talk to an older sibling about the need to deal with the baby first, the book suggests telling them in tones of happy reminiscence '"Mary, when you were little and hungry, I'd tell Timmy and Elizabeth and the older ones to wait a bit because I wanted to feed you…" Mary will love the idea of once having been the star.'  Yup – and I love the idea that the authors could take it for granted that a family of six or more children would be the norm among their audience.

But the biggest contrast between this relic of a bygone era and so many of the parenting books of today is in the tone of the entire book.  In her highly controversial article about the breastfeeding wars, Hannah Rosin wrote of The Womanly Art Of Breastfeeding 'The experience of reading the 1958 edition is like talking with your bossy but charming neighbor, who has some motherly advice to share. Reading the latest edition is like being trapped in the office of a doctor who’s haranguing you about the choices you make.'  I haven't read the latest edition, so can't comment on that (though it is fair to say that one reason why I haven't read it is simply because it looks so daunting – the edition my mother gave me is a delightful little guide that I read at a sitting, while my distant recollection of what I saw of the latest edition at the occasional LLL meeting that I managed to attend is that it bore more resemblance to a textbook to be dipped into for reference purposes).  But I do know that the tone of this book is a world away from the tense anxiety-ridden attitude of so much of what I read in modern breastfeeding literature in particular and childcare literature in general. 

In the books of today's parenting world (across the parenting spectrum), there are a host of possible ways to get things Wrong which must be avoided at all costs, and, oh, the pitfalls that might lead to Wrongness are many and devious and hard to spot – cling to our crucially important advice as closely as you can, dear readers, because dread disasters hover in wait for you and your baby otherwise, and won't somebody think of the chiiiiiiildreeeeeeen?  But, to the LLL founders, their role was simply to offer a small collection of pieces of friendly advice to get a mother's feet well set on a path that she would, thereafter, be fully capable of treading herself.  They genuinely believed in the ability of mothers to do the job of mothering.

For me, the book was a breath of fresh air and a joy to read.  Good grief, it even made the world of 1950s homemaking sound pleasurable – I can never leaf through the book without feeling inspired to go cook something with shortening (what the hell is shortening, anyway?). But, most of all, it's a loving gesture from a mother who has done so much for me that matters so much more than those weeks of breastfeeding or months of formula-feeding.  And one day, I hope to be able to turn that gesture into a family tradition as I write my own inscription in the space below my mother's and place the book in the hands of my own daughter, on the birth of her first baby.

 

Other posts in the Carnival include:

Elita at Blacktating: Three Generations of Breastfeeding

Christine at Christine's Contemplations: My Family History of Breastfeeding

Judy at Mommy News Blog: My Family History of Breastfeeding

Mama Mo at Attached at the Nip: How Women In My Family Feed Babies

Tanya at The Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: An Unbroken Chain

Jona at Breastfeeding Twins: Beer & Bottles (and other motherly advice)

Alicia at Lactation Narration: Only the Hippies Were Breastfeeding

Jake Aryeh Marcus at Sustainable Mothering: Breastfeeding? Not in My Family

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Nephew!

Congratulations to my sister and brother-in-law – my first nephew arrived today, just after midnight.  Weight still unknown, as is whether I'm allowed to reveal his name yet (I do know it).  Mother and child apparently doing fine.

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Further news about my sister

"You know Auntie Ruth?" I enquired rhetorically of my children.  "Well, she's got some exciting news.  There's a baby in her tummy!"

"In MY tummy!" from Little Miss Don't-Dare-Leave-Me-Out-Of-Anything.

"Er, no, Katie.  In Auntie Ruth's tummy.  It's still very tiny and it has to stay in there for a long time still, but it will get bigger and bigger and some time in September – maybe about the 14th of September or maybe earlier or maybe later – it will be big enough to come out.  And then it will be your cousin!"

"Of course," Jamie agreed equably.  "Now, we have to draw all these A's on this piece of paper."

If anyone would like to respond with any more conventional sentiments, do feel free to do so – I am exceedingly pleased about the upcoming prospect of aunthood.  In the meantime, huge congratulations once again to both Ruth and Neil.

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My sister, on the other hand…

…is keeping this year's family excitement quotient up in most excellent style.  She has moved in with her boyfriend, become engaged, and we are all looking forward to the wedding this May.

"Will Neil be at Auntie Ruth's wedding?" Jamie inquired today.  "After all, he is Auntie Ruth's friend."

I assured him that not only would Neil most certainly be at the wedding, he would indeed have a starring role as the person Auntie Ruth would be marrying.  This was, it appeared, satisfactory news to Jamie.

My warmest congratulations to both Ruth and Neil, and I look forward to having a new brother-in-law.  Very best wishes to you both.

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